I was a very greedy reader. I read an enormous amount. Mainly thrillers and detective stories, and later on a lot of middle-brow stuff.... It’s the business of not knowing the answers that gets fiction written. One’s imagination streaks into other people’s lives.
In a career encompassing fourteen novels and thirteen collections of short fiction now culminating in the posthumously published Last Stories, William Trevor’s critical reputation has, to a remarkable degree, been considered in light of his sustained interest in depicting Irish feminine consciousness. His most popular and widely acclaimed novels—from Fools of Fortune (1983), to Felicia’s Journey (1994), and The Story of Lucy Gault (2002)—are linked in their careful interrogation, conducted from wide-ranging vantages, of feminine reality under the often oppressive agendas of the Irish state. While his long-form work has frequently hosted more sophisticated and affluent protagonists, Trevor’s short fiction has, since the late 1960s, been staffed by a gallery of petty criminals, confidence men, and above all, actors and artistes who habitually prey on the resources of the courteous and the genuinely kind. In this regard, Trevor’s work exemplifies the contention of Frank O’Connor, who argued in The Lonely Voice (1962) that the short story was a form built for “submerged population groups…tramps, artists, lonely idealists, dreamers, and spoiled priests,” all those who remained “by their very nature remote from the community.” Last Stories once again demonstrates an insurgent sense of how apt the short-story form is for expressing minority points of view.
The magnificent “Giotto’s Angels” traces the perambulations of Constantine Naylor, a peaceable but psychologically disturbed art restorer. Naylor wakes up one “bright May morning in 2001” on a bench in central Dublin with no memory of the recent past. His diagnosis of “amnesiac abnormality” almost certainly stems, the narrator implies, from a traumatic criminal or abusive episode in his adolescence in the provincial town of Knockmell. Naylor, who has many times forgotten his own name, now wanders the streets of the capital city taking signs for wonders: “When privately he considered his life—as much of it as he knew—it seemed to be a thing of unrelated shreds and blurs, something not unlike the damaged canvases that were brought to him for attention.” This image links, and even takes solace in, the equation of a damaged aesthetic object with a tattered social consciousness. Here, Trevor illustrates Chesterton’s insight that our “modern attraction” to the short story is no mere literary fad, but rather expresses the recognition that life’s fleetingness and fragility are best evoked by single, sharp impressions.